Gillian Welch, The Dome (Brighton, UK 11/12/11)
An eight-year wait; two people, two guitars, one banjo, a harmonica or two, twenty-three songs, four standing ovations, three encores, an 1800 capacity crowd – yes it was the much anticipated first night of Gillian Welch’s 2011 UK tour.
Although all the pre-show publicity suggests that it is Welch alone, of course her long-term musical partner, Dave Rawlings, accompanied her – and how! The man is a genius on guitar and stands up against the very best you will ever see. Throughout a 55-minute first set and a 75-minute second set, his fingers just worked their magic on his 1935 Epiphone Olympic. Scarily, he fell when walking from the dressing room to the stage and in an attempt to save his guitar, landed awkwardly on his arm – thankfully, apart from the shock of the incident, he and the guitar seemed to suffer no ill effects.
‘We love you guys’ someone shouted out as they took the stage; acknowledging that affectionate declaration with smiles, Welch and Rawlings opened the night with Orphan Girl – it was the song that first introduced me to Welch’s music – Emmylou Harris covered it on her 1995 album WRECKING BALL. Welch, a year later, included it in her debut REVIVAL.
This tour was showcasing the critically acclaimed 2011 album THE HARROW AND THE HARVEST that I am sure will feature in many ‘best of year’ lists. All ten tracks were offered up tonight. Just two voices and pared back acoustic instrumentation replicating the recorded versions perfectly. These new songs were beautifully interspersed with older material from three earlier albums. The arrangements were so strong that it is difficult to pick out a highlight but one must mention Revelator, which included Rawlings performing an extended guitar coda to much appreciation and applause.
Welch and Rawlings have been working together for many years and have developed a seemingly telepathic understanding; they prefer to let their music do their talking for them and by that I mean that there was not much chatter between songs. In fact, at one point Welch did say that she couldn’t understand why performers feel the need to explain what a song is about as they are about to play it – her take on this is that the song should speak for itself. Following this observation with Elvis Presley Blues, she made her point well.
However, when either of them did punctuate the songs with narrative, it provided a nice contrast against much of the material which is dark in its subject matter – an amusing example came just before the interval break when Welch beseeched the audience to stay for the second set. Given the rapturous reception the first set had received there was little chance of anyone making an early exit!
Returning after the interval break, she joked that they had made it to the stage ‘without incident’ then took up the banjo and harmonica for No One Knows My Name from 2003’s SOUL JOURNEY. It features the most autobiographical of her material and this song in particular draws upon her own situation as an adopted child. Hard Times also featured the banjo and even Rawlings swapped his much loved guitar for banjo on Six White Horses – this introduced some levity in an otherwise quite serious show as Welch performed a thigh-slapping and hand-clapping dance during the song.
Rawlings took the opportunity to perform Sweet Tooth from his (Dave Rawlings Machine) 2009 release A FRIEND OF A FRIEND. The set finished with Look At Miss Ohio and the applause was so loud and sustained that the pair came back for a triple encore. Billy followed by Caleb Meyer ‘just in case the body count has been too low, we’ll give you a killing’ completed the first encore. The Christian spiritual I’ll Fly Away was the second, after which we thought that that would be it only to be cheered as they returned for a third encore – The Way The Whole Thing Ends and finally a surprise ending – Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.
A triumphant return to Brighton. Welch and Rawlings are inseparable; the songs, the playing and the harmonising creates a perfect whole and it is a joy to see them play and sell out a sizeable arena like the Dome. Here’s to the next time! Jela Webb